Listening to Complaints
A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool. (Proverbs 17:10)
Different people will respond in different ways to your ministry. In fact, different people will respond in different ways to the same sermon. Two individuals separately approached me after a sermon I once preached. One told me, “You are legalistic.” The other told me, “You are an Antinomian.” They couldn’t both be right. I hope neither was right!
Just listen to these…
Complaints will come as you minister. People in the congregation will complain about your preaching, leading, decision making, or lack thereof. They may object to how far the house you bought is from the church or to the way you run a meeting. Jonathan Edwards’s congregation (eighteenth century) complained that he had two powdered wigs. How dare he! What extravagance!
Recently, a pastor told me he was confronted for not wearing his suit coat to the church’s evening service. He apologized before preaching for having forgotten it at home, yet people in his congregation still voiced their dissatisfaction with him when the service ended.
I once read of a pastor’s experience when he had a man tell him he would never respect him as a pastor because he went on a three-hour car drive with his family on a Sunday afternoon to visit a family member. The man felt the pastor was somehow violating the Lord ‘s day. Some complaints are silly, others can be hurtful, but some are helpful.
We don’t need to seek complaints because they will come regardless. Many young pastors are shaken by the dissatisfaction that members or leaders of their congregations express. They didn’t realize this would be part of ministry. Expect complaints and be prepared for them.
When complaints come, we must be willing to listen. A good pastor will remain teachable. He needs the same admonition, correction, and training in righteousness that every member of the church needs (2 Tim. 3:16). Even if the complaint is inaccurate, there may be motivations behind it that are helpful to know and understand.
For example, a woman may approach you after a service and complain that your sermon was too negative and not hopeful enough. That may be accurate, but it might also signal that she struggles with discouragement and yearned for a more encouraging word that morning. When a complaint comes, receive it. Fight the inclination to be defensive, and be willing to pray about the correction offered.
While we must remain humble and willingly listen to the concerns of the people we serve, it is unnecessary to entertain every complaint. Some complaints are ridiculous and can be quickly disregarded. They are not worth the sleepless nights, hours of introspection, or questioning that can follow. The sooner we realize this as a pastor, the better.
When I receive a complaint via email or letter, experience has taught me that such messages are best handled in person. Written forms of communication allow individuals to express a more vehement attitude than they would dare offer in person. The waters tend to calm when the discussion takes place face-to-face. Even more important is the reality that most of us are much more effective in conveying tone and tenor in person than we are in written forms of communication like letters and emails.
Try to develop a thick skin, but cultivate a tender heart. Don’t take complaints too personally. Remind yourself that criticism comes with leadership. You are a focal person in the church, and some people feel the need to direct their anger, hang-ups, and dissatisfaction at someone. Because of your visible leadership position, you just happen to be the most viable option.
More people will express opinions about what we say, do, or don’t do than about anyone else in the church. That is to be expected as part of leadership. Develop a thicker skin so that you can receive the number of complaints that will inevitably come your way. However, even as you attempt to have thicker skin, always maintain a tender heart. Stay humble, stay loving, cherish the people of God, and rejoice that you get to serve them.